Year end pensees: more on security

OK, we're already 4% of the way into the new year of 2009. But there are still 10 or 11 days left in the current Chinese Year of the Earthen Rat, before we welcome the auspicious Year of the Golden Ox. So if I hurry I can get through my list of topics worthy of year end wrap-up. (Previously here, herehere and here.) This time, on security:

- Most important remaining symbolic change: getting rid of the abhorrently un-American, odiously Teutono/Soviet term "Homeland Security," and replacing it with something less Gestapo-sounding. Here is one suggestion: "Civil Security." The Integrative Center for [groan] Homeland Security at Texas A&M has a video on its site in which the director, David McIntyre, argues that "civil security" is both a better concept and a better name. Video is a little over seven minutes long, "civil society" discussion is in last minute and a half. Entire site worth inspecting.


- Latest evidence of the primacy of "security theater" over real security: this assessment of how many lives the U.S. can save and how much havoc it can prevent for each million dollars the TSA spends on air marshals -- versus using the money to harden cockpit doors or take other steps. About air marshals the study says:

An assessment of the Federal Air Marshal Service suggests that the annual cost is $180 million per life saved. This is greatly in excess of the regulatory safety goal of $1-$10 million per life saved. As such, the air marshal program would seem to fail a cost-benefit analysis.

More about TSA security theater on an ongoing basis from the Reason Foundation's Airport Policy and Security newsletter, from Bruce Schneier passim, and of course from the Atlantic's loci classici, here and here.
- Security theater takes a holiday in Beijing. Until just before the Olympics, there was no bag-check before you went into a subway station. Then airport-style bag-screening machines were installed at all the stations -- and six months later they are still there. They constitute an imperfect security shield, to put it mildly. Passengers themselves aren't checked at all, so you could get onto the subway with anything you wanted packed under a gigantic winter overcoat.(Picture below shows my standard Beijing winter attire, minus the mufflers, sweaters, big hat, long underwear, etc.)


(Illustration from )

Now, and heart-warmingly, the people running the system act as if they know it's just for show.  Of the last 20 or so trips I've made on the subway, I've skipped putting my bag through the machine about half the times. Once it was because the security station was unattended; twice, because the person who was supposed to look at the x-ray screen was sleeping. The rest, because the attendants just waved me on or didn't give me a second glance. Everyone involved is acting as if this has become a nice public-employment project.

- My own personal act of (legal) Don't Tread on Me-ism, for when I move back to the US and resurrect my flying career. This article, by Dave Hirschman on the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) site, describes the change in the flying environment in Washington over these past seven years. Essentially it's become illegal for most anything except airliners or police helicopters to fly within about 30 miles of the capital - roughly as if cars and trucks could no longer operate anywhere in downtown DC. ( More here and here.) That's perfectly normal in China, where you practically never see flying craft except at big airports. For the US, it's a change. There is an exception, which involves going through Secret Service screening to obtain the right to fly as "close" to the seat of government as College Park, Maryland, whose very nice little historic airport is barely staying in business. As a little symbolic assertion of freedom, I'll go through the screening process when I get back.

(Further on pointless "security" measures involving small airplanes here, here, here, and here. For another time, full explanation of why these won't work.)

There is one more security theme that I'll also save for a separate post. It has to do with the potentially destructive and dangerous conception of "security" that President Bush harped on in his final press conference. Will try to do that while I can still refer to him as "the President" rather than "former President" GW Bush.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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